Wednesday, October 31, 2007

James M. Cain and Agatha Christie

By Barbara D'Amato

In grade school, high school, even college, I read fiction without much—or maybe any—sense of the structure that supported it. Even when I was lucky enough to take a course with Vladimir Nabokov, who led us to focus on details, rather than just coast along enjoying the events, I don’t think I had any sense of structure. That didn’t come until I started trying to write.

Structure and narrative technique. In structure and technique James M. Cain and Agatha Christie are very much alike. Not in content, I suppose, although you could make an argument that several of Christie’s villains are like Frank.

As Libby Hellmann mentioned in an earlier post, The Postman Always Rings Twice was the one-conference one-book choice at Magna cum Murder last week in Muncie. I hadn’t read Postman in many, many years and remembered nothing about it. I was surprised to see Christie’s technique in it.

For example, it is told mostly through dialogue, as are Christie’s novels. Both authors are far more “show, don’t tell” than was most fiction of the period.

The sentences are direct, using nothing that a friend of mine used to call “fancy writin.’” Cain can be lyrical in the accumulation of sentences, but like Christie doesn’t go in for Proustian length or complexity.

Or elaborate scene setting. Like Christie, Cain gives you only as much setting as you need. It has been said about Christie that she never includes a scene just for atmosphere or padding. Every scene advances the plot. Cain too.

Both writers are deceptively plain and forthright. Robert Barnard has said about Christie that her writing seems simple, and yet is very subtle. Both authors are so declarative that the reader takes the information as simply true, a useful deception in Christie’s puzzles.

Christie believed a novel should be capable of being read in one day. Cain’s novels can be gobbled in an evening.

James M. Cain and Agatha Christie, siblings under the skin? There’s a scary thought for Halloween.


Kevin Guilfoile said...

I'm sorry Barb. Did you just say you took a course with Nabokov? Like Nabokov was your professor? Did I read that right?

Um, please tell us more so my body can be warmed by this thick coating of envy I'm currently secreting through my pores.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Yup, indeed I did. It was at Cornell and just before Lolita was published, to extreme contoversy. It was a European literature course, and if I remember right, included Swann's Way, Bleak House, The Grearcoat, and Anna Karenina. His approach to reading was a revelation to me. I had read, I guess, for big ideas. He called certain writers, whom he disdained, "purveyors of illustrated ideas."

Maryann Mercer said...

I'm a dialogue fan, which is probably why I liked Christie at an early age and still re-read her stuff (even knowing the ending does't spoil the story). Too much narrative makes me drowsy, although James Lee Burke and Kent Krueger do JUST the right amount and hook me early on. Their dialogue is no nonsense as well. Nabokov. Wow. Just that. Wow.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I think I am shining by reflected glory here, which was not my intent. But the course with Nabokov was the first time I asked myself how writers get their effects. Maybe all of us who later write have a moment, or course, or a reading assignment, when sudddenly we see that fiction is made up to achieve an effect. As far as I can remember, all my teachers up to then had asked questions like, "Why is Iago behaving in this manner?"

Ed said...

Would love to hear more about your class with VN!

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, maryann and ed.

Ed, the classroom had a stage at the front, from which Nabokov lectured. His wife, Vera, came to class every day with him and sat in a chair on the stage next to him. She was an elegant, serene woman with beautiful silver hair. We were all quite impressed.